here come the painbirds

March 17th, 2010 by Phil Leave a reply »

Somehow a week, almost two, went by before I heard about Mark Linkous. Here is the incredibly short version: Mark Linkous fronted/was Sparklehorse. He was, at his best, on a level almost with practically nobody else. And he apparently went outside, sat down, and shot himself in the chest with a rifle on March 6.

Three months ago, Vic Chesnutt did just about the same thing. Vic was also one of the great ones. I really wanted to say a lot about it, write a lot about it, and I guess I just never did. I never really could figure out what to say. I guess I’m mentioning Vic now as a way of apologizing for not having said what I should have said before, even though I still don’t know what that was.

I feel a little better equipped to talk about Mark Linkous, for a few reasons, including that it’s been 10 years since I’ve seen him, and because I feel like I can much more directly explain where and when and why he mattered most to me.

The first Sparklehorse album was Vivadixiesubmarinetransmissionplot. It came out some time in 1995 but damned if I know when. There was a minor hit from it in “Someday I Will Treat You Good”, which managed to get airplay a couple of times on 120 Minutes, which we watched fairly religiously, at least in so much that freshman in college do anything religiously. I don’t really remember what the reason was, but at some point in 1995, or at least I think it was 1995, maybe at the beginning of the summer, I was with my dad, and we were going into Evanston, or at least into somewhere near Evanston, and we stopped at a record store, and they were selling Vivadixie with a free t-shirt to go with! So that’s when and where I got that album.

I listened to it fairly frequently over time. “Someday I Will Treat You Good” and “Rainmaker” were frequent plays over time on my radio show (GOAT-SPIEL for those of you who don’t know). Honestly, the album didn’t sound like anyone or anything else. In fact, it made almost no sense at all that this recording existed like this. Inexplicably, it was released on a major label (Capitol), even though half of the songs sounded like they were recorded in caverns, and the entire album was basically conceived by and recorded by Linkous; I’m not even sure there were any other musicians on the album. I’ve seen some strange words used to describe the sound, like “psych-folk”, but really, it’s a pop-rock album, sort of schizophrenic, sort of reminiscent of some of Tobin Sprout’s songs for Guided By Voices, but the recording itself has this completely different quality to it. A lot of the album really sounds like context to the parts of the album which we’re supposed to listen to most closely, if that makes sense.

It took a long time for the second album to come out, because Linkous managed to almost kill himself along the way. Technically the report is that he was officially dead for two minutes, stemming from some mixture of chemicals/drinks/prescriptions/whatnot. This all happened while I was in college, during a time when all kinds of tastes and interests come and go, where the pantheon of greatness expands beyond any point which makes any sense. Over that time I managed to find crazy 7″s – not that I owned a turntable to play them on – and in general I would say that I was very pumped about Good Morning Spider finally coming out. That Linkous almost died along the way just added to the mystique.

I’ve long held two critiques of Good Morning Spider, the two things which I think keep the album from being considered one of the pinnacle, greatest albums ever recorded. First, it’s simply too long, and it loses steam toward the end. Second, I still really do not so much care for “Sick of Goodbyes”, which screams of David Lowery being involved. If if there were just something else there, then the first half would be just about perfect.

Having said that: Good Morning Spider is a masterwork. It’s an incredible album in a lot of ways. There’s an actual band backing Linkous on much of it (though not all of it), and it provides a lushness to what otherwise seems almost too stark to handle.

The album starts off with a noisy, pissy mess in “Pig”, which features one of the greatest pair of lines in rock history:

I want to be a stupid-ass shallow motherfucker now
I want to be a tough-skinned bitch but I don’t know how

Then the song ends, and the next song, “Painbirds”, is completely the other direction. In some ways it feels even more defiant, like it doesn’t want to be treated as the fragile, delicate thing that it is. The combination basically demands that the listener pay attention to what’s going on, because the tone, the sound, and the melody can be almost completely misleading. Remember, this is the album recorded in the wake of the man almost dying.

Now, here’s the story as I understand it. Capitol wanted to release a single, so they picked the obvious choice – the catchiest song, the biggest rock song on the album. And Linkous was adamantly opposed to this being the single – so much so that he literally destroyed the song by overdubbing it with radio static and turning it into this amazingly fucked up song-within-something-else in the middle of the record. On top of that, he took the original recording and mangled or destroyed it outright, so it couldn’t be reissued separately. Capitol wound up going with “Sick of Goodbyes” as the single. Although there was some very strange attempt to salvage “Happy Man” which did get reproduced on some weird promotional EP – and which in and of itself is really quite an amazing recording – the final result would up being the centerpiece of the record, and what I still feel is one of the ten indispensable songs ever recorded.

“Chaos of the Galaxy / Happy Man” manages to be transcendent because the power of the song itself is refunneled into a different medium altogether. I realize this doesn’t make any sense, but it’s hard to explain why what he did actually works. It’s a variation on the idea of trying to tune something in on the radio, and getting static along the way, in that buried in the static seems to be something more cosmic. It’s not like the radio band is being scanned, it’s like the galaxy itself is being scanned, and in the middle of it is this man desperate to be happy, with that desperation somehow coming off as some sort of representational statement of the galaxy.

Linkous put together a tour, and I managed to see Sparklehorse, with Varnaline opening, in Cleveland, at the Grog Shop. This was one of the ten best concerts I’ve ever seen. It was the best Varnaline set I think I ever saw, and Sparklehorse was really incredible. Linkous had to work leg braces from his accident – he’d nearly died, and in the aftermath came out somewhat crippled – and he still fronted what proved to be this tight band really just pouring themselves out. He used two microphones – one normal, one distorted – something I’ve never seen before, and have never actually seen since.

It’s A Wonderful Life came out in 2001. There are moments I really like – “Piano Fire” is a duet with PJ Harvey, and you can never go wrong with that. I have to confess that it never really grabbed me, though. It wasn’t really a great time for me to be listening to music and making sense out of any of it, maybe. It just sort of got consigned to the shelf, rarely to come off. When the followup, Dreamt for Light Years in the Belly of a Mountain, finally came out in 2006, I bought it almost dutifully. I’m not even sure I can tell you anything much about it, except that Danger Mouse was somehow involved.

The first two Sparklehorse albums remain important albums in my collection, though, and whatever distance there might have been between my ear and whatever Mark Linkous has done the last few years, it is really a jolt to find out that another important voice in my life saw fit to off himself. Vic and Mark, of course, had a lot in common – they were both Southerners with weird musical sensibilities, Vic being crippled and Mark having been somewhat crippled for quite a while, Vic having appeared on two Sparklehorse records. They actually seem to share a lot with a third musical icon, David Berman. Thankfully, Dave didn’t use a gun, so he’s still alive.

At times like this I really feel like I got off track at some point. Even when I was at my most depressed, the primal presence of music – and new music for that matter – was this vital, incredibly important aspect of living. It just doesn’t seem right to me that I would have lost that. It makes deaths like Mark’s and Vic’s feel almost like warnings to me. I don’t mean that in the overly stark sense it might seem. But I still mean it. I wish I knew what I meant when I say that I mean it.


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